May 26, 2005

A Very Long Disengagement from Israel

Things seem to have quieted down in the Arab-Israeli conflict in the last few months. Nonetheless, a storm is brewing. Laura Bush's visit to the region earlier this week and the throng of protesters who followed her every step attest to this. In a move conceived of during the frustrating final months of Yasser Arafat's life, the Israeli government is preparing to evacuate and to dismantle the Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Sharon's intentions are twofold: first, to make a unilateral move that will demonstrate Israel's commitment to the land-for-peace principle and, second, to alleviate some of the daily inconveniences that Palestinians in the Gaza Strip face as a result of Israeli security arrangements.

While he may be well intentioned in his desire to create movement in a political arena that has fallen into stagnation, Sharon is fostering far more problems than he is purporting to fix. Disengaging—to use the highly sanitized political buzzword—at this point would create future headaches for both Israel and its Arab neighbors, and it would send the wrong signals to those who would choose terrorism over diplomacy and rule of law. The cardinal sin of the disengagement is that it is a unilateral move at a time when bilateral or multilateral negotiations should be taking place.

While Arafat was still alive and still hindering any progress toward peace, such a push by Israel to take matters into its own hands would be a positive step. Arafat's death, though, and the subsequent anointing of Mahmoud Abbas as the new Palestinian leader, brought the Israeli government a new possible peace partner. True, Abbas is a corrupt former terrorist, like Arafat, who uses dictatorial methods to rule, but unlike his predecessor he has shown himself to be a rational actor. Abbas so far seems capable of taking diplomatic steps to act in the best interests of the Palestinians.

The unilateral nature of the disengagement is not its only flaw. The May 2000 Israeli withdrawal from the southern Lebanon security zone sent a message of weakness to terrorist groups and the Palestinian leadership, and it is thought to have been partly responsible for the recent Intifada. Southern Lebanon is now controlled by Hezbollah, an Iran-sponsored terrorist group that is estimated by some to be stronger and more dangerous than al Qaeda. Unilaterally disengaging from the Gaza Strip would only accomplish two things. First, the area, which is already dominated by Hamas, would become a base for terrorist operations against Israeli, American, and European interests. It would be a destabilizing element against both the Palestinian Authority and Egypt. Second, the fortitude of terror groups that currently hesitate to strike Israel would be strengthened. Israel's enemies would see proof that terrorism simply pays off.

Disengagement is not only a wrong move politically, but it will also weaken Israel morally. Many who support it claim that the Gaza Strip was not part of ancient Israel, and thus more Israeli blood should not be shed to retain it. This is not correct. Jews did not control Gaza during the first independence period (circa 1000-587 BCE), but it was an integral part of ancient Israel during the late Hasmonean period (first century BCE). After that time, Jews continued living there as a majority of the population until they were forced to flee during Napoleon's Egyptian campaign in 1799. The Jews returned, but they were forced to leave in 1929 by the British, who controlled the Strip. Jewish towns were reestablished in 1946, but they were soon destroyed by the Egyptian Army in the 1948 war for Israeli Independence. For Israel to relinquish territory that has for millennia been an integral part of the Jewish homeland is a sign of moral weakness that will only undermine the Jews' 2000-year struggle to regain independence in the land of Israel.

Even more than the cession of land, it is the inherent racism of the disengagement policy that threatens Israel's moral character. Under the plan, no Jew will be allowed to live in the Gaza Strip. Israel has never as a policy uprooted Arab towns or villages, so why is it now doing so to Jewish towns? The land upon which these Jewish communities are built is classified by international law as "disputed territory" under Israeli administration, whose ownership must be determined through future negotiations. None of the Jews who live in the Gaza Strip are there contrary to international law.

The news media, choosing to call these Jews "settlers," as if they are squatters on others' land, is a distortion of both history and the current situation. These so called "settlers" are nothing more than men, women, and children of all ages who have been living in their towns and villages for over two decades. Some are the descendents of Jews who lived in Gaza for centuries. Many Jews are buried in cemeteries in the area, a testament to the connection between the land and its residents.

As Israel prepares to take a dangerous step this summer, and force thousands of civilians out of the homes they built on ancestral land simply because they are Jews, it should strongly reconsider. If the Sharon government does go through with the plan, there is no choice for Jewish Gazans but to acquiesce and leave their homes in obedience of the law. Israel is a democracy, and to resort to violence against Israeli forces conducting the disengagement would be an attack on the general will. But those who would be torn from their homes, and those who stand in solidarity with disengagement's victims (arguably the entire Jewish people), should continue to raise their voices loudly in protest.

The peace process is not about unilateral action; it is about dialogue and negotiation. It should not be about demolishing communities, but about constructing the social and political institutions necessary for Jewish and Arab towns to coexist peacefully in proximity to one another. Now is not the time for the Israeli government to be undertaking a policy of "transfer." If Ariel Sharon's vision of the peace process is bulldozing Jewish houses, and thus creating harmful divisions in Israeli society, then this summer will be just the beginning of a very long disengagement.